First, I have a confession to make. For more years than I care to admit (this isn’t a full confession), I thought I knew all there was to know about the French wine label. I had it all figured out. I knew all the regions, the appellations, the producers, I even knew the specific names of vineyards in Burgundy, Alsace, the Rhône, and beyond. But all of this was rent asunder when I came upon a little thing called the “Lieu-Dit.”
At its simplest, “Lieu-Dit” means the name for an uninhabited site. This in and of itself is not terribly informative and at worst is misleading. The problem with working from this definition there is a tendency to apply the term too broadly, which was precisely the erroneous path I had taken. If an unfamiliar word appeared on a label and it wasn’t an appellation or a specific vineyard name, I assumed, wrongly, that it was a Lieu-Dit.
Here’s the thing: In the context of French winemaking, Lieu-Dit actually means the historical name for a site within a vineyard or in some instances the vineyard itself. Even more precisely it is the name for a site which the locals have used over the years to identify a specific parcel of land, but this name would have little meaning to an outsider. To further complicate matters there is another term, Climat, which is perniciously intertwined with Lieu-Dit, but supposedly has its own distinct meaning, but let’s not distract ourselves and focus solely on the Lieu-Dit. (An interesting discussion of Lieux-Dits and Climats can be found here).
Allow me to use an example from my personal experience to further shed some light on how and why Lieux-Dits come about. When I was growing up it was a longstanding tradition that every weekend our family would pile into the car and head out to our grandparents’ house in the country. Their home, a modest two story farmhouse, rested atop a hill overlooking ninety-nine acres of land bordered by a lazy river. Over the years we grew to intimately know every inch of those ninety-nine acres. Countless hours were spent traipsing through the orchard, heading down to the “lower level” for fishing, helping Grandpa to pull vegetables from the garden, and exploring the unplumbed and jagged foundation of an old, ruined barn. Eventually we ascribed a unique sobriquet to nearly every part of our grandparents’ land. This was not only a way of giving us points of reference so we wouldn’t get lost on our long treks, but it also was a means to make the space our own. Most names were frankly rather dull in their plainly descriptive way, like “The Meadow;” while others had more panache, such as the “Witch’s Den;” an abandoned structure of rusty corrugated steel that rested at the very edge of the property. Common to all of these names was that they were a reference point unique to our family. It was a dialogue solely between us and the land. Telling an outsider to turn left at the “Witch’s Den” would have been confusing if not downright disconcerting.
As far back as the seventh century, and likely even further, French monks began the practice of cataloging and naming specific sites within a vineyard with the goal of differentiating one parcel of land from another. Experience taught them that variances in altitude, degree of slope, soil type, and countless other variables all contributed to the unique character of a wine. Assigning a name to these sites better enabled the winemakers to return to a parcel again and again and have a solid sense of the type of wine it would produce. Having this information was a boon as it offered the winemaker a clearer vision of how best to approach the winemaking process. Further, for the consumer, it provided an expectation. Given the wide range of stylistic variations that can exist even in one vineyard, having a name tied to a specific parcel offers the consumer a point of reference. Finally, there was an even more practical benefit in naming these sites when you consider that a single vineyard could span over several acres. Having a named site orients one in the vast expanse of vines.
Now that we have established with a modest level of certainty of what a Lieu-Dit is, let’s look at a couple examples. First, let’s consider the vineyard Clos de Vougeot. At over 125 acres it is the largest single vineyard in the Côte de Nuits. As one could imagine in an area this expansive there is a broad range of topographical variation and as such it is home to more than one Lieu-Dit. Interestingly many of these Lieux-Dits have faded away and are lost to history while only a small handful remains. One of the better known is a .93 ha parcel called “Le Grand Maupertui” owned by Domaine Anne Gros. It is assumed the Cistercian monks who first cultivated this parcel around the 12th century gave it this name because of the little yellow flowers called Millepertuis that dotted the landscape here.
Stepping outside of Burgundy and heading southward to the Northern Rhône another example of a Lieu-Dit can be found in ‘La Mouline.’ Located within the appellation of Côte-Rôtie and more specifically the Côte Blonde, this parcel of land is owned by the famed producer Guigal. With its counterparts ‘La Landonne’ and ‘La Turque’ this triumvirate of Lieux-Dits make up some of the most sought after wines in Côte-Rôtie.
Alsace also has several Lieux-Dits throughout its vineyards, one example, and a personal favorite, is Mambourg located in the commune of Sigolsheim. The grapes sourced from this plot produce wines that consistently offer exotic notes of mango, lychee, and quince. If you haven’t had the opportunity to try the wines from here, I highly recommend them.
Knowing what a Lieu-Dit is and why they exist is yet another reason why wine continues to fascinate. Not only does illustrate the importance of place, but it connect us in some measure to the past. It serves as a reminder of the uniqueness of wine.